Rea, Leon Haslam and Toprak Razgatlioglu scored Kawasaki’s second-ever victory in the Japanese endurance classic in its most recent running in 2019, beating Yamaha in a controversial finish that was eventually decided by a protest ruling.
Six-time WSBK champion Rea will again spearhead Kawasaki’s works effort in this weekend's 2022 edition of the race, with Haslam and Alex Lowes completing the line-up.
With Yamaha no longer having a factory team for the Suzuka 8 Hours, Kawasaki and Honda's respective works operations appear to be the main contenders for victory.
But it has been Honda that has set the pace in pre-event testing, with ex-Moto2 racer Tetsuta Nagashima setting a best lap of 2m06.232s in last month's two-day official test.
That compares with a best of 2m06.925s from the bike shared by Rea and Lowes in the absence of Haslam, who represented Kawasaki single-handedly in the previous test in June owing to a clash with the Misano WSBK round.
“I’ve only done one test there, and Honda was really strong with Nagashima,” said Rea when asked about Kawasaki's Suzuka prospects. “It’s good, because we feel like the underdogs at KRT.
“We’re pretty much packing up our World Superbike team and going there having just done a couple of tests and trying to do a good job. It worked out in 2019 [however].”
Lowes struggled with a stomach illness during last weekend’s WSBK round at Most and was even forced to sit out the last race on Sunday, and it remains unclear whether he will be in a position to aim for a fourth Suzuka win after his previous three successes with Yamaha between 2016-18.
In 2019, Haslam was battling through both sickness and a previous injury while Razgatlioglu took no part in the race itself at Kawasaki's discretion, leaving he and Haslam to share the riding duties.
Rea says the memories of contesting the 2019 race as a duo with Haslam are still fresh in his mind.
“I think this year our rider line-up is good with Alex and Leon, but I hope Alex’s stomach feels better,” said the Ulsterman. "In 2019 Leon was not in perfect health, he was quite sick that day, and Toprak didn’t ride.
“With two riders it’s tough. Hopefully Leon can be fast, Alex can be fast, and we have a good race. It’s not about the fastest, it’s about who makes the least mistakes, who can be consistent, and who is the best in traffic as well.”
Honda is by far the most successful manufacturer at Suzuka with a total of 27 race wins, but it hasn’t been victorious in the race since 2014.
The Sakura-based manufacturer has assembled a strong cast of riders in a bid to end its victory drought, with Nagashima joined by three-time winner Takumi Takahashi and new WSBK signing Iker Lecuona aboard its works Fireblade.
Takahashi feels the trio form a potent combination and can upset Honda’s factory rivals in what is the 43rd running of the race.
“Nagashima has been setting the best lap times, and although he tested the bike, I’ll try not to slow the team down,” he said. “Lecuona’s first experience on the Suzuka Circuit was the June tests, but he was fast.
“Until now, I felt a lot of pressure not to hold the team up in Suzuka 8 Hours races, but this year, I think it will be different.
“I hope we can be clear of the competition throughout the race, but nothing is that simple, so I’ll try not to make any mistakes. With these two, and the HRC staff, if we do what we should, then the results will follow.”